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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 13, March 21, 2015

Can Modi Rejuvenate Ganga?

Sunday 22 March 2015

by Manoj Misra

can Modi rejuvenate Ganga?

—No and Yes.

—No, if business as usual (BAU) remains the norm. BAU involves high rhetoric, photo ops, poor understanding, emphasis on engineering solutions, little accountability, public suffering and apathy.

—Yes, shall obviously require a negation of all that defines a BAU approach and more.

It is not that the governments preceding the current one did nothing. Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans (GAP and YAP) were put into operation as externally-aided projects in 1986 and 1993 respectively. Significant amounts of funds totalling several thousand crore rupees were spent and pollution abatement infrastructure like STPs, ETPs, electric crematorium etc. were created. Still a CPCB assessment of river Yamuna following a Supreme Court direction in 2012 found that the gravelly polluted stretch of the river had actually increased by a whopping 100 km since the YAP came into operation.

Clearly GAP and YAP, with focus largely on pollution abatement, was not the ‘right’ strategy. In other words, the planner’s and executive’s obsession with merely ‘cleaning’ of the river Ganga and Yamuna was an exercise in futility.

So, now when the Modi Government begins its task with a goal to ‘rejuvenate’ the river Ganga, hope becomes a worthwhile emotion to possess.

Let us see what and how can there be a rejuvenated Ganga?

First, rejuvenation implies return to a pre-defined state of its health. This in relation to a river would imply a state of health which by popular and scientific knowledge is desired and known. Achieving that state of health as an avowed target of the concerned shall be thus an integral part of an informed planning and follow-up action.

Secondly and far more important would be a thorough understanding of what actually ails the river in the first place that deserves curing?

Regrettably on both the above two counts, there is little in the public domain to satisfy the nation that the state is moving in the right direction. On the contrary some disturbing trends, which might further compromise the river Ganga, are becoming visible.

Here it may be worthwhile to first see what has the state in recent years done for the river Ganga?

River Ganga was on November 4, 2008 declared a national river and a PM-chaired National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was set up in February 2009 with a large membership including a number of well-known NGO representatives. All this happened on the eve of the fifteenth general elections in early 2009. It is another matter that once the then UPA had retained power, the NGRBA could meet only three times in four years (2009-2012) and achieved little in terms of its objectives of abatement of pollution and river basin approach to planning and implementation.

One tangible act though of the NGRBA was the setting up on July 6, 2010 of a research and planning team consisting of a consortium of seven IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and Roorkee), since popularly known as IITC. The IITC was given a well-defined mandate by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to prepare an Environment Management Plan for the Ganga River Basin (GRB EMP). To their credit they produced four reports by December 2010 and continued on their refinement till Modi rode, amongst many other waves, the Ganga wave to the 7, Race Course Road address of the Prime Minister of India. Sushri Uma Bharti, a well-known Ganga bhakta, was given the charge of the Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. It seemed that acche din (good days) for river Ganga were truly in the offing?

A National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) had been established in 2011 as a registered society to act as the executive arm of the NGRBA. The stated objectives of the NMCG are pollution abatement and maintenance of ecological flows in the river. The new government in its very first national Budget allocated Rs 2037 crores to a programme, called the Namami Gange, to be implemented by the NMCG. Now while there is frequent mention of aviral Ganga (flowing Ganga) and nirmal Ganga (clean Ganga), the fact that aviralta (uninterrupted flow) contains nirmalta (cleanliness) in it, is still to get mainstreamed into our planning and action. This fact is proved by a perusal of the NMCG website, where in terms of actions it is yet again the old and failed strategy of GAP and YAP that reigns supreme, with not even a lip-service to the need of ensuring aviralta in Ganga! Maybe the authorities are still awaiting the final report from the IITC to begin the planning and actions for aviralta or the actions to ensure aviralta are presumed too politically sensitive to put into place, because it is ‘structures’ on a river that breaks its aviralta.

Taking the bull by its horn, the fact is that the Ganga has been reduced to its current pitiable state by the ill-advised construction in last few decades of structures like the dam at Tehri (Uttara-khand) and the barrage at Farakka (West Bengal) which have interrupted and diverted the river to its peril. The barrages on it at Haridwar (Uttara-khand), Bijnor, Narora and Kanpur (UP) have enabled large scale diversion of its waters and led to the resulting drying of the river over long stretches during the non-monsoon months. And if all this was not enough, then at least 600 more dams are either under construction, planned or on the anvil, on a number of key tributaries of the Ganga. It is feared that if all these dams were to materialise then around 60 per cent of Ganga tributaries like Bhagirathi and Alaknanda would dry up. Further, the grand design of a barrage after every 100 km of Ganga from Allahabad to Haldia and to dredge it to turn the river commercially navigable, completes the threat picture of the river.

So, can PM Modi still rejuvenate Maa Ganga in the face of these imminent threats begs one asking with answers that should convince?

In our understanding, no river can be rejuvenated unless its various narratives are taken into account.

A river must flow unmolested to the seas; it must flood freely over its flood plain; it must host with ease all its biodiversity; it must fulfil its ecological role of annually quenching the thirst of its associated aquifers feeding countless wells, ponds and lakes; its natural path howsoever winding must be respected and not changed; it must not be fouled. And all these must be true as much of its tributaries, big and small, that lie within its basin.

Now, of the various narratives of a healthy river mentioned above, what are being truly addressed in reference to Maa Ganga shall make the difference between the success and failure of the rejuvenational aspirations for the river Ganga of the current regime? Unfortunately prima facie it is just one, namely, the ‘fouling’ of the river, which is not going to be enough if there are any strong lessons to be drawn from the failures of both the GAP and the YAP.

Many might hold that shuck! Here is a loony out to demolish the icons of economic development in the country!

To them our response is twofold. First is that then please do not promise or aspire for a rejuvenated Ganga, and second is that please carry out a fair, independent and thorough analysis of the benefits that have been gained by a powerful minority (largely urban) from the structures raised on the river (including its tributaries) and the costs (social, economic and ecological) both upstream and downstream of the structures that have been borne and continue to be borne by a voiceless majority (largely rural) from the demise of the river.

We would also like to remind the votaries of the environmentally destructive development that the natural systems like rivers have been placed at the disposal of the state by that voiceless majority in an implicit public trust, which the former under the ‘doctrine of public trust’ cannot and should not abdicate specially when rivers in the country enjoy no legal protection.

Interestingly, there is a move afoot to seek from the state through legal means a perpetual monetary compensation for the voiceless victims of the loss of their river that has resulted from various structures created on it. No matter how this legal challenge plays itself out and whatever its outcome, there is a strong likelihood that this legal challenge might impress upon the concerned of the urgency of a rejuvenated Maa Ganga as well as bring attention to the plight of all those millions who continue to suffer for no fault of theirs.

Clearly the rejuvenation of Maa Ganga is not just an emotional or religious or political imperative. It is actually a question of life and death for not just the river but for millions (humans and non-humans both) dependent on it for their life, livelihoods and ensured wellness.

Manoj Misra is the convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.